THE UNCOMMON READER
By Alan Bennett
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pages, $15
To read is to be slightly ill. And the symptoms only worsen when reading something good. A 19th-century novel, a Bleak House or an Anna Karenina, commits us to its pages with a consumptive fatigue. Moral vitaminists assure us that the habit of contemplative isolation, with its accompanying lowering of vital signs, is somehow salutary, that to read is to be a little more alive. But let’s be honest: To read is to be a lot more dead. (In the best sense of the word, of course.)
The delights of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader begin with its title, a gentle but deft play on words, and flow forth in easeful perfection for the 120 pages that follow. (The infallible Mr. Bennett is the Brit responsible for such wonderful imports as Beyond the Fringe, Talking Heads and The History Boys.)
The uncommon reader is the queen of England, who, upon following a pair of braying royal corgis outdoors, discovers a large van, the “City of Westminster travelling library,” parked in a courtyard. Here she meets young Mr. Seakins, a ginger-haired kitchen worker and avid bookworm, whose odd deportment—he appears nearly unconscious of her regal station—intrigues the Queen.
Acting on Seakins’ recommendations, she slowly works her way up, from Compton-Burnett to Thackeray, Dickens and Eliot, and finally to the mountaintop, to Proust, having become an unlikely but passionate and discriminating consumer of literature along the way. What the woman now relishes (questing introspection, banter about Genet), the office cannot tolerate: Her aids notice her becoming as listless in her public duty as she is painfully earnest in her private discourse, and conspire to scotch off the habit before it precipitates a crisis.
This modest but sturdy novella is a spoof of two ridiculous holdovers: the British monarchy and high literary values. The first Mr. Bennett deflates, without urgency; the second he defends, without urgency. True wit relaxes, the author argues implicitly; it never overexcites. When the Queen engages the prime minister with her new learning, Mr. Bennett murmurs, “This was not a good idea. The prime minister did not wholly believe in the past or in any lessons that might be drawn from it.”
When her security detail blows up, as a precautionary measure, the novel she’s been reading, Her Majesty responds, “Exploded? But it was Anita Brookner.” And my personal favorite, no less amusing for being inevitable: “[T]here were many who hoped for a similar meeting of the minds by saying they were reading Harry Potter, but to this the Queen (who had no time for fantasy) invariably said briskly, ‘Yes, one is saving that for a rainy day,’ and passed swiftly on.’”
Reading undoes the Queen where she most lives, so to speak; it mucks with her sense of hierarchy, of social station. “The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not.” Well, yes, exactly right. On the one hand, the great books abide in a state of more-or-less permanence, granite outcrops left exposed by a glacial recession, un-reckonable by fashion or whim; on the other hand, they are modesty in its rawest form, a record of serial failure in the face of loss and death.
Books, the really good ones, the ones that, no matter how hard we try to desecrate them with pomp or inattention, won’t go away, remind us of what it’s like to be alive. (The unpardonable cheek.) So, though apparently small in obvious scale, The Uncommon Reader is quite lovely in ambition: a little cameo that, if you look closely, is about a very public woman waking up, late in life, to the fact that she has seen everything but the world.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate magazine’s critic at large.